Since quake, 'I wanted to do something Wednesday, May 6 2009
By Celine Sun
Unlike many women her age, Nicole Schoeni, 28, may be hesitant about some things in her life, such as deciding whether to buy a certain pair of shoes. But Ms Schoeni, who has been in charge of the Schoeni Art Gallery for five years, is always decisive when it comes to getting hold of a painting that appeals to her.
"I was brought up with art. So collecting art for me is easy," she said.
The gallery, set up by her father, Manfred Schoeni, in 1992, was one of the pioneers in exhibiting and promoting contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong in the 1990s.
When she was still a little girl, Ms Schoeni started to travel with her father to the mainland to meet artists and collect art pieces. She still often visits Beijing and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, to meet friends and liaise with clients.
The earthquake in Sichuan a year ago was a shock because many of her artist friends lived in the region. "We were actually panicked. The first thing we did was to try to call everyone and make sure they were OK."
Although she found all her friends were safe after two days, the heart-wrenching news about the mounting casualties and the miserable conditions of quake survivors left unforgettable images in Ms Schoeni's mind.
"I always wanted to do something for Sichuan people, but didn't know how," she said. "I felt quite excited when Sotheby's approached me for the Homes for Hope project."
She has donated a hand-printed work by Yue Minjun for the project, launched by the South China Morning Post to help two quake-hit villages in Sichuan rebuild houses and infrastructure.
The silk-screen print, titled Water, will be auctioned with four other artworks at a gala dinner to be held by the Post next Tuesday, the first anniversary of the earthquake, to raise funds for Homes for Hope.
"Both my parents are from humble backgrounds and established their careers through hard work," Ms Schoeni said. "They often told me not to take life for granted. I know how lucky I am, and because of that, I always want to give back."
Born into a privileged family in Hong Kong, Ms Schoeni inherited a passion for art from her father, a successful Swiss businessman and art dealer. Five years ago, her life changed when her father was murdered in the Philippines when she was about to sit final exams in Chinese language and economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
"I made the decision to come back to Hong Kong to represent Schoenis at an exhibition opening in our gallery, as my mother had flown to the Philippines to deal with funeral affairs," she said. She has since been following her father's legacy in running the art business with the help of her mother. Although she said she was still "young and naive", Ms Schoeni described herself as a "tough cookie" inside.
"I had a very difficult time at the beginning, learning how to work with staff and artists and to establish networks. I'm still learning now."
In recent years, she has begun to broaden her client base by nurturing younger mainland artists and young collectors in Hong Kong.
"Art is a reflection of history. The works of these artists born in the 1980s are playful and naughty, very different from the older generation.
"Their painting reflects what their generation represents, and I believe they will be recognised by more people in years to come."
On the block
Artist Yue Minjun
SCMP Homes for Hope: how you can give